The BBC give us a sumptuous and timely adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel of spying and terrorism The Secret Agent. Toby Jones, who it appears is becoming the go-to man for any drama made at all these days stars as Russian spy Verloc in this period piece set in London in 1886. Verloc appears to be the owner of a seedy sex shop in Soho but is also working for the Russians and is spying on an anarchist cell. Russia is deeply concerned at the wave of anarchism sweeping across Europe and dismayed at Britain’s attitude of not doing anything about it.
His Russian handler tells Verloc that he must organise a bomb attack in the heart of London in order to provoke a response and crack down from the British but must try and keep his actions secret not least from Chief Inspector Heat of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Division.
This is the fourth BBC adaptation of the Conrad novel, the first was in 1967 for a mostly studio bound production with Nigel Green as Verloc, then again in 1975 with Paul Rogers. The third was a big budget production in 1992 with David Suchet as Verloc. There was also a big screen, non period, version in 1936 directed by Alfred Hitchcock (this was called Sabotage) and another big screen outing in 1996 (directed by Christopher Hampton).
A preview piece in the Guardian remarked on just how timely this production (and each of the other versions) seems to be remarking that “Conrad’s book still seems to be the fiction that best expresses western society’s concerns about terrorism and popular revolution.” This was something echoed by star Toby Jones in an interview with the BBC in their press pack to promote the series. He remarked that the story”seemed incredibly relevant. It makes you think about behavioral cycles in society. How much and what kind of control the Government and the police can put on them. That’s dealt with by Conrad – how to infiltrate that group, how to have double-agents, triple agents, how everything gets besmirched, nothing is clear. You see it in TV and film at the moment with the spy genre return – people are aware that all is not what it seems and that is the way it has to be while we have an enemy within, apparently.”
Meanwhile Tony Marchant, who adapted The Secret Agent agreed, saying in the same press pack that what attracted him to the piece was “the contemporaneity… was its obvious appeal and Conrad’s almost prophetic view of a world in political ferment, assailed by terrorism and the geopolitical maneuvering of Governments. At its heart and what really convinced me to go ahead was the fact that it’s a domestic tragedy – the heartbreaking story of a family caught up in terrorism, in bigger events they do not understand. Winnie is a tragic, working class heroine whose only fault is that she’s so hopeful. So that made it irresistible.”
UK / BBC One – World Productions / 3×60 minute episodes / Broadcast 2016
Writer: Tony Marchant / Novel: Joseph Conrad / Producer: Priscilla Parish / Director: Charles McDougall
Toby Jones as Verloc
Vicky McClure as Winnie
Charlie Hamblett as Stevie
Marie Critchley as Jessie
Ian Hart as The Professor
Raphael Acloque as Tom Ossipon
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Michaelis
Christopher Fairbank as Yundt
David Dawson as Vladimir
Philip Rosch as Councillor Wurmt
Stephen Graham as Chief Inspector Heat, Special Crimes Unit Scotland Yard
Tom Goodman-Hill as Assistant Commissioner Stone, Scotland Yard
Ash Hunter as Hedges, Special Crimes Unit Scotland Yard
George Costigan as Sir Ethelred, Home Secretary
Penny Downie as Lady Blackwood